Speak to any fan of Lost in Space and he or she will instantly understand you if you talk about the CHANGE in the series. Depending on the fan’s personal preference, a lament about the campy antics of Dr. Smith from the latter part of season one onward might follow. I would suggest, however, that that is not the only change to occur in the series. Many fans do not seem to be aware that there were in fact four major changes in the show’s “feel” over its three season run.
The first season episode “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” marks the first sea change for Lost in Space. Maybe. That was the last chance to get rid of Dr. Smith. Possibly. Many believe that this is the episode to kill Smith off. Evidence in support of this is flimsy and circumstantial. Yes, it would have been a good opportunity to get rid of him—have his brain removed by the aliens and that would be the end of the matter. Yet that is not what happened. Circumstantially, the episode was written by Shimon Wincelberg, who cowrote the pilot with Irwin Allen, and thereby received the credit as co-writer for the initial five episodes of the series (since so much of the pilot was used in those episodes). That is to say, presented with a new character he had not created (Smith) Wincelberg was called on—just possibly—to kill him off. But, as I said, it didn’t happen. Smith stayed in the series. I tend to doubt that this is the case though, since “Invaders,” while so close in look and feel to the first five episodes, was nonetheless the eighth episode filmed (“Welcome, Stranger” and “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” intervened), so unless the script for “Invaders” was tied up in development for several weeks, I don’t think there is much evidence to support that Wincelberg was hired to kill Smith. But it would have been a great opportunity…
The second change in the show’s direction is the character development of Dr. Smith, largely due to the work of Jonathan Harris in the first season. By “The Oasis” we see all the characteristics of Smith that will define him (and guide script writers) for the rest of the series. We have greedy Smith (who eats the fruit); self-pitying Smith (“You did this on purpose!”); self-righteous Smith (“I’ll crush them all for what they’ve done to me!”); and clownish Smith (as when he sneezes and bowls Maureen over). All of these elements made sporadic appearances in earlier episodes, but in “The Oasis” they come together and become the definitive character of Dr. Smith. As I have argued elsewhere, this change was due to the popularity of the Smith character from the start of the series. As Jonathan Harris developed Smith’s character, producer Irwin Allen, impressed with viewer response to the new Smith, actively encouraged him to continue.
Change number three was quite literally a change in the look of the series. Beginning with season two the show went to colour. To paraphrase Turanga Leela, the words “Tone it down” didn’t exist on that planet. At the same time, most fans agree that the series became campier. I would agree, but only insofar that camp elements began to make regular appearances; if you actually look at the episodes in season two, very few whole episodes could be labelled camp (“Mutiny in Space” and “The Space Vikings” are outstanding examples of high camp episodes), but there are many episodes that have camp scenes in them (for example, “West of Mars,” where the space cowboys ride stuffed animals). It is also in season two that we occasionally hear a slapstick piece of music at the end of an episode segue into the final bars of the show’s closing theme. Change number three could be called “the Batman Factor” since this change was reliably attributed to the stiff competition faced by Lost in Space when Batman premiered opposite it.
The fourth and final big change in the series might be termed “the Star Trek Factor.” Beginning with season three, there was a deliberate change in the focus of episodes to give the crew more adventures on more planets, and more interaction with aliens. This was directly the result of a decision by network executives worried about the competition presented by Star Trek, in which such a format was the norm. So perhaps we should not ask when Lost in Space changed; we ought to ask how many times it changed.